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Magdalen Rising -- The Beginning (Part 1 of the Maeve Chronicles)
Elizabeth Cunningham
Monkfish, 402 pages

Magdalen Rising  --  The Beginning (Part 1 of the Maeve Chronicles)
Elizabeth Cunningham
Born in 1953, Elizabeth Cunningham is a direct descendant of nine generations of Episcopal priests. She grew up hearing rich (sometimes terrifying) liturgical and biblical language. Graduating from Harvard-Radcliffe in 1976, she resisted the temptation to go to seminary to study for ordination to the Episcopal priesthood. The possibility was especially tempting because at the time ordination of women was not allowed. When the church ruled in favor of women's ordination a few months later, she heaved a sigh of relief and went on writing The Wild Mother, her first novel, a radical re-telling of the story of Adam, Eve, and Lilith. She lives with her husband and children in an Enchanted Wood in New York's Hudson Valley.

Elizabeth Cunningham Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Passion of Mary Magdalen

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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The four Gospels account of the life of Jesus suffers from a "Rosemary Woods" gap -- a period of roughly eighteen years between the ages of 12 and 30 in which either Jesus did nothing worth noting or was entirely absent from Palestine. There is some Biblical evidence to suggest the latter view. John the Baptist failed to recognize his own cousin, implying that he hadn't seen Jesus for quite some time. Also, Matthew 17:24-27 recounts that Jesus had to pay a Roman enforced "strangers tax" levied upon aliens.

These so-called lost years of Christ have proven comedic fodder for such folks as songwriter John Prine's "The Missing Years" and Christopher Moore's Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, both of which imagine Jesus wrestling with the typical adolescent growing pains related to sexuality and clueless adults. While Prine's Jesus somehow or other ends up in countercultural America of the 60s, Moore's version posits that Jesus traveled to China and India, where exposure to Buddhism and Hinduism became a basis for his spiritual beliefs. (A backhanded slap in the face to the fundamentalist position that the "one way" to find God is through Christ and all other religions are false.)

Some folks think it not unlikely that Jesus may have done just that. Another speculation goes that his great uncle, Joseph of Aramathea, reputed as one of the first Christian missionaries to Britain and the founder of what became Glastonbury Abbey, might conceivably have taken the young Jesus up North for vacation.

This is the premise of Elizabeth Cunningham's Magdalen Rising, (previously published as Daughter of the Shining Isles). It is the "prequel" to The Passion of Mary Magdalen, a feminist, as well as very funny, Gospel retelling in which the titular heroine, a holy whore in the service of goddess worship, loves Jesus both spiritually and in the carnal sense, adding an heretical dimension to what it might mean to be a child of God. Fundamentalists who have not stopped reading at this point will find little consolation that the two do get married and don't merely live in sin. In Cunningham's view, the concept of sin promulgated by the organized church is nothing Jesus would have condemned, which is presumably the conceit of the final volume of the Maeve Chronicles, Bright Dark Madonna, due out later this year.

To further piss off the pious, Cunningham posits Mary Magdalen as a Celt supposedly fathered by a sea god and raised by eight warrior witches on a magic isle. Upon reaching sexual maturity, she is dispatched to a Druid college where she meets the teenaged carpenter's son, referred to here as Esus. She takes the name of Maeve, which means mead, from that of Queen Maeve (also spelt Medb) of Connacht -- a warrior famous for her skill both on the battlefield and the bed sheets. In Celtic lore, she is a figure of the intoxicating power of passion.

Cunningham's Maeve certainly lives up to her namesake, though that is played out more in the second volume of the series. Magdalen Rising is a coming of age story, prefiguring not only the events of The Passion of Mary Magdalen, but also the Gospels, in particular the crucifixion. Here, Maeve and Esus are strong-headed adolescents, whose bluster barely manages to conceal their own insecurities and doubts.

Despite their supernatural heritage, Maeve and Esus are decidedly human characters. Nor is this a one-sided matriarchal mythos to replace the standard patriarchal version. Rather, this is a depiction of equals. Maeve and Esus help shape each other's personalities; but they also must separate from one another to fully realize "who they are." That sounds New Age-ish, and there may be a touch of that in some of the theology, but nothing the average cynic can't handle.

Some may find them too human, and not just from an orthodox religious perspective. The story is narrated by Maeve, whose voice is not only decidedly contemporary, but something of a wise ass. For example, here's how Maeve describes the onset of puberty:

Growing pains, my mothers had explained the aching to me. How big would they get, I wondered. They already overflowed my palms. And when would I bleed? My mother's stock answer "all in good time" was worse than no answer at all. I also did not appreciate their jokes about torches flaming at both ends. That's right, my pubic hair had grown in as bright as the hair on my head. I can only be thankful they did not know the story of Moses and the Burning Bush or I never would have heard the end of it.
--p. 13
If you're one of those people who get annoyed at historical characters speaking in modern idiom, this might not work for you. On the other hand, you might allow for the fact that a transcendent figure of Western mythology should be able to transcend her time period.

Unlike some popular fiction of late with plots purporting a revisionist history as grounded in "facts" that aren't widely held by scholars, Cunningham isn't pretending for a moment that any of this might have some historical basis. In an afterword, she notes, "When the idea came to me that Mary Magdalen was a Celt, I thought, What fun!"

It certainly is that. But there's also a serious undertow in which the various calamities that beset Maeve and her counterpart reflect how organized religion has lost sight of its own humanity, let alone spirituality. More than what Jesus may have done during his lost years, or whether a Jewish woman may actually have been a Druid-schooled holy whore, that is the heretical notion here. The fact that it is also funny and imaginary doesn't make it any less truthful.

Copyright © 2008 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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